Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Long Game

Today's Star Tribune carried a commentary called Meanwhile, in foreign affairs: why Russia meddled. It's a good companion to my post from a few days ago, The oil behind the man behind the curtain.

The writer, Jim Lenfestey, is a former editorial writer for the Strib, with a liberal perspective (not quite what I would consider progressive, based on his past writings). He covers some of the same ground as my Twitter sources, recounting how Russia wants to sell its oil despite climate change. His key point is that Russia began to move on the U.S. election in 2014, just after sanctions were imposed in response to the Crimea invasion.

Who would Russia want as president, if removing the sanctions is their main goal? Well gosh, surely not Hillary Clinton. Sowing discord in general was also a major goal, I would guess, but Lenfestey doesn't talk about that.

What he does say, which I've never thought of before, is that Russia doesn't just want to sell its oil to make money, despite climate change. It wants to sell its oil to further climate change, because it sees itself as a winner in a warmed Earth. And on a simplistic level, given some of the projections, they're right:

(I wrote about that map a few days ago.)

Look at all that nice green, arable land across Russia! Plus they get navigable northern ports and control of more open water. As Lenfestey puts it,

Oil-rich Russia sees itself a winner as the climate changes and thousands of miles of northern coastline melt. To it, stopping the sanctions and the transition to noncarbon sources of energy is a double win.
Enemy isn't a strong enough word for Vladimir Putin.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Way Out of No Way

I've known the Sweet Honey in the Rock song "Oughta Be a Woman," with lyrics from a poem by June Jordan, since I was 22. I don't know that I ever read the words on the liner notes of the album because they always seemed perfectly clear in their beautiful voices:

Oughta Be a Woman
June Jordan, 1936 - 2002

Washing the floors to send you to college
Staying at home so you can feel safe
What do you think is the soul of her knowledge
What do you think that makes her feel safe

Biting her lips and lowering her eyes
To make sure there’s food on the table
What do you think would be her surprise
If the world was as willing as she’s able

Hugging herself in an old kitchen chair
She listens to your hurt and your rage
What do you think she knows of despair
What is the aching of age

The fathers, the children, the brothers
Turn to her and everybody white turns to her
What about her turning around
Alone in the everyday light

There oughta be a woman can break
Down, sit down, break down, sit down
Like everybody else call it quits on Mondays
Blues on Tuesdays, sleep until Sunday
Down, sit down, break down, sit down

A way outa no way is flesh outa flesh
Courage that cries out at night
A way outa no way is flesh outa flesh
Bravery kept outa sight
A way outa no way is too much to ask
Too much of a task for any one woman
(Listen to the song on YouTube.) 

It's an ode to black women, and black mothers especially. It has always been resonant, but hearing it yesterday, the lines "Biting her lips and lowering her eyes/To make sure there's food on the table" called my attention more than usual, thinking of recent attention to sexual harassment and assault among women workers.

And then at the end, I realized I had been misunderstanding that final refrain for 36 years. "A way out of no way." Somehow, white woman that I am, I had always heard that as "Away out of no way" and just thought it was poetic language, but no: it's about making a way out of no way, a common phrase in African-American life, descriptive of black people's necessary way of being.

White people, we know nothing about black people, even when we have put some effort into reading and listening.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Oil Behind the Man Behind the Curtain

Meteorologist and journalist Eric Holthaus said on Twitter today,

There is no way to explain the rise of Trump or his administration's malignant connection to Russia without looking at the oil industry's desire to keep making profits at the expense of planetary well-being. Climate politics — and institutionalized climate denial — is perhaps the primary reason the world is at it is now. These people are so selfish and greedy for fossil fuel money that they put every single one of us — for dozens of generations into the future — in peril.
Holthaus tweeted that in the context of a recent Rex Tillerson interview about his ties with Vladimir Putin. Around the same time, someone else I follow (not sure who) retweeted a May 2017 thread by Alex Gilbert, an energy and climate policy analyst. Gilbert had this to say:
The political news the last two weeks was crazy and overwhelming. But finally a picture is emerging. It’s not pretty.

To start, its helpful to understand that what's happening in the U.S. is a result of international high politics. Some context: In the mid-2000s, growing global oil demand and stagnant supply led to oil prices spiking severely. Between 2007 and 2014, with oil prices usually above $100/barrel, oil exporters became over reliant on oil surpluses. In 2013, Russia exported more than $350 billion in oil and natural gas, more than 2/3 of total exports.

Meanwhile, the shale revolution began. From 2008-2015, U.S. oil and natural gas production exploded, increasing about 50%. Critically, the U.S. pushed fracking and liquid natural gas exports as a solution to Europe’s dependence on Russian fossil imports.

In 2014, an inflection point arose for oil: U.S. oversupply was evident and oil exporters were too dependent to cut production. In six months, oil futures dropped from >$110/barrel to barely $40/barrel. OPEC and Russian profits evaporated. While the effects were felt in all major petrostates, they were most acute in Russia due to exceptionally unfortunate timing.

In 2004, then Ukrainian Prime Minister Yanukovych had an election overturned due to fraud. Shortly after he turned to Paul Manafort. Over the next ten years Manafort helped rebuild Yanukovych’s pro-Russian party. Elected President in 2010 with support from ethnically Russian east Ukraine, Yanukovych led a corrupt regime. 2012 Parliamentary elections are now suspected of having significant electoral fraud (bribes to election officials have been identified). Current evidence now indicates Manafort directly benefited financially from that corruption

In late 2013, after years of negotiation and despite promises, Yanukovich decided not to join the European Union. Instead, he wanted to increase economic and security ties with Russia. Street protests erupted in Kiev (ethnically Ukrainian).
From there, I imagine Gilbert went on to describe the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the geopolitical dilemma that presented, but Twitter has cut off my access to this nine-month-old series of tweets.

But you get the idea of how this is all related to oil prices, and oil as an economic basis. And gives one idea of the kind of turmoil that we’ll see if we (when we) turn from an oil-based energy model to something that can sustain human civilization, as we must.

It ain't gonna be pretty.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

A New Antibiotic on the Way?

Among all the worries of our current era, there's one that's so far only a low-grade nag for me: the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. I don't let myself worry about it too much, but I know it's out there and I don't fully appreciate how bad it will be if resistance becomes common.

So here's one little bit of hopeful news: In soil-dwelling bacteria, scientists find a new drug to fight drug-resistant superbugs.

Malacidin (great name, by the way) breaks down the cell walls of MRSA and cleared the infection within a day in animal trials. If malacidin works out, it will be the first new class of antibiotics since 1987. And probably the first to prevent development of resistance.

How it was identified is also interesting: scientists knew that calcium dependence was a weakness in bacteria, so they were looking for ways to disrupt calcium. They fine-tuned their search to the DNA signature of calcium dependence, making it quicker to find in the soils they sampled.

Saturday, February 17, 2018


From today's letters and commentaries in the Star Tribune. First, two letters.

Have hunters had enough?

OK, hunters — I mean real hunters. Sportsmen. Not wannabe, gun-toting NRA members who are confused about the use of nonwartime firearms. Not uneducated people who don’t understand that the NRA’s start was for firearm safety. Or that the Second Amendment was to protect ourselves against government militia. Not about protecting those who want to kill their brothers and sisters. It’s time to stand up. It’s time to give up protecting the right of a 19-year-old deranged punk to procure an AR-15 assault rifle with abundant ammunition to kill more children.

I’m sick. Sick and tired of your belligerent NRA rhetoric to protect something a real hunter doesn’t need and doesn’t use. To you, the NRA, using my name and passing out the worst sporting magazine in America, American Hunter. Give it up. You want to ruin our heritage of outdoor sports? Stay stupid. Don’t give an inch to resolve a plague that kills children. You aren’t a hunter. You’re a dinosaur. The NRA is bringing us hunters down to protect deranged gun freaks.

Quit using my name as your shield. Save our rights to use firearms to hunt and shoot a round of trap.

David Larson, Plymouth, a volunteer firearm safety instructor, gun club member, deer camp huntsmaster and grandfather.
Other than Larson thinking the Second Amendment was about protecting against the government (rather than suppressing revolts by enslaved people), everything he says is right on.

The second letter is also from a hunter:
Most citizens are very upset about the mass shootings in our country. I am 76 and a lifelong Minnesota hunter. I use a semiautomatic deer rifle and semiautomatic shotgun. “Semiautomatic” means that it fires once every time the trigger is pulled. My deer rifle clip holds four cartridges and one in the chamber, for a total of five. The rifle does not hold more cartridges because the manufacturer (Remington) has determined that there is no practical need for more than that for most deer hunting. My shotgun also holds five shells, but Minnesota law for duck hunting requires that I put in a “plug” that allows only three shells in order to limit the killing of ducks. If I get caught hunting ducks without the plug, I get fined or worse.

My point is that if we limit the number of cartridges either for practical purposes in hunting or to protect ducks, surely we can limit the number of cartridges in a clip in semiautomatic weapons. I propose that we have a federal law prohibiting the private possession or sale of large-capacity clips. This is what mainly distinguishes an “assault weapon” from a semiautomatic hunting rifle. This law would not render a semiautomatic assault weapon useless to the owner. He merely would have to buy a smaller clip and destroy or turn in the larger clip, perhaps with a remuneration from the government. This would slightly impact some hobbyists and target shooters, but that seems a small price to pay to help protect our citizens from mass shootings. This obviously would not stop all killings, but it would require the shooter to reload, giving people more time to escape or overcome the shooter.

David Fulkerson, Chanhassen
Finally, I stopped to mourn over one particular fact given in a commentary by Twin Cities physician Chris Johnson:
there were fewer than 4,000 AR-15-type weapons registered in [all of Canada]. In 2013, the National Shooting Sports Foundation estimated that there were between 5 million and 9 million such weapons in circulation in the U.S.
Even 4,000 of these weapons seems like more than necessary. Five to nine million... I just can't grasp that.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

What a Dollar Buys

Digging through a drawer, I came across this dollar bill:

I don't remember when I got it, so it must have been a while ago, but it's as pertinent today as every, unfortunately.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Restroom Dialogue

Most restaurants restrooms are somewhat generic. If you're lucky, they're clean and functional. They're not a place you go for art or even decor, really. The operators of the businesses are trusting their customers to not steal or trash the place, and that tends to keep the removable objects to a minimum.

With that as context, here's something I recently saw on the wall inside one of the restrooms in a small restaurant/coffeeshop in Saint Paul:

It's a board, about four feet in width. Note the handwriting five lines from the top on the upper right side. Here's a close-up of that part:

Finally, there are two other, identical signs attached on the left and right sides of the board that look like this:

(A computer-generated sign that reads: Dear Righteous Vandal, I am all for freedom and everyone having an opinion. However, I pay thousands of dollars per month for this space, not you. Inserting your opinion by permanent marker on my property and in my space is is not only cowardly (hiding in a public bathroom) but illegal. So you virtuous vandal and "child of your mom," I am sure she would be just as disappointed in you and baffled by your selfish choice as I am. Seeing as you enjoy writing, you can make the check out to [name] for the $170 piece of art you ruined. I will wait.)

Needless to say, I was a bit surprised when I saw this. I actually saw the orange zigzag frame first, then read the "dear righteous vandal" text, and then finally noticed the handwriting on the larger text.

I had never noticed the four-foot board before, and I personally would not consider a bunch of Times Roman text set at a fairly hard-to-read width and printed on a board as artwork, per se. But, no, I would not — at least at my current age — consider writing on a sign like this in a restroom, even if I disagreed with the sentiment. (Well, maybe if it was fascist or something, but I like to think I wouldn't be in that restroom to start with.)

At the same time, this interaction between a proprietor and a customer makes for a unique bit of art all on its own, an installation about the nature of private property and free expression.

It made for a thoughtful visit to the restroom.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Four Degrees, Six Meters

Two climate change thoughts for today.

From Inside Climate News: the last time Earth was as warm as it is now was about 125,000 years ago. Sea level was 6 meters higher then than it is today. The story focuses on the acceleration of sea-level rise. And that's at our current level of warming.

Which makes this map of what a 4°C-warmer world will look like — originally published in New Scientist in 2009 — newly relevant:

Clicking the image will let you see it larger, but if it's still not large enough there, check it out on

I notice that Minnesota is on the desert fringe. All of China and almost all of the U.S., India, South America, and Africa are basically uninhabitable. And people are growing food in part of Antarctica. Imagine the migration of billions of people (and probably mass deaths) that would happen in this scenario.

Why is anything else we humans are dealing with important?

Monday, February 12, 2018

A Lament

Here's something we can agree on:

If there was ever a post that fits into my Life in the Age of the Interweb category, this is it.

Sunday, February 11, 2018


I've written before about my thoughts on pride. I recently saw this graphic, which fits well with that post:


I can live without the colorful circle graphic (not sure what that's supposed to be), but the underlying drawing and the main sentence speak for me.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Ellsberg and the Garbage Dump

The other day, I caught part of a conversation with Daniel Ellsberg that was broadcast in the evening on NPR. I can't find the show now, but this article in New York magazine covers the topic I want to mention.

Ellsberg has a new book out, called The Doomsday Machine, about the nuclear arms race during the Cold War period. It turns out, he had more Pentagon Papers on that subject that were never released to the press. This is why:

The cache [he took from Rand Corporation] included not only the 47-volume history of Vietnam that became known as the Pentagon Papers, but also thousands of pages pertaining to his many years of work on nuclear deterrence....

One of the documents in his safe, as the FBI surely knew, was a classified nuclear study commissioned by Kissinger. “It’s the same old Dr. Strangelove stuff: 90 million dead, 120 million dead,” Ellsberg says. “But I was going to put that out, of course.” Ellsberg stashed that memo, along with all the other nuclear materials, in a box and gave the lot to his brother, Harry, who later wrapped them in plastic and buried them in the compost pile behind his home in Hastings-on-Hudson. Harry, who is now dead, told his brother that the FBI came poking around the compost pile. But he had already moved the box to another hiding spot, beneath a big iron stove in the garbage dump in Tarrytown.

Ellsberg intended to arrange for the nuclear papers to be leaked after his trial in Los Angeles, where he was sure he would be convicted. But then he was vindicated through a chain of events he calls a “miracle.” The Watergate investigation revealed the activities of Nixon’s plumbers, including the burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. The case against him was dismissed. Afterward, though, Harry gave him some bad news: A tropical storm had flooded the dump in 1971. The nuclear papers were lost....

The Doomsday Machine represents Ellsberg’s attempt to reconstruct, via his memories and now-declassified documents, the knowledge that was washed away. 
So that's incredible, right? If it weren't for a tropical storm, maybe there would have been a move toward disarmament, or Reagan would never have been elected...

A few things Ellsberg covers in the book, which I heard him describe on the radio, were that it's not (and never has been) just the president who can launch a nuclear attack. Since Eisenhower, that ability has been delegated to top-level generals and admirals, and they in turn have empowered the next level down. So there are dozens of people who could do it. And the commander of any nuclear-enabled facility (whether a submarine or land-based unit) is allowed to launch if they are out of contact with command and believe there is military necessity.

Lyndon Johnson, Ellsberg said, stood up and told a bald-faced lie during the 1964 election, saying the president was the only one who could launch the nukes, and that therefore you shouldn't vote for Goldwater because he couldn't be trusted. Johnson had himself reaffirmed the chain of command that allowed dozens of other men the right to launch the missiles.

That the president who was behind the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution lied shouldn't be shocking to me, I know. And yet. I can still be shocked about nuclear war.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Term Limits

Last night when I wasn’t sleeping, I concluded that I support term limits for elected offices.

The limits I would set are longish compared to those preferred by many advocates, something like 12–16 years for the House and 18 years for the Senate. Eight years for governors, though I’d consider 12 years there as well.

It’s a hard choice for me, because I value the expertise accumulated by long-time elected officials, and I know it will have unintended consequences (more power vested in staff, more revolving-door lobbyists, at a minimum).

But the current system ossifies government. The power of incumbency is just too strong, both on its own and as a result of how the human minds of voters work. Voting out an incumbent plays strongly into loss aversion (seniority! committee chair!).

That's my thought for the day. As I said, it was the result of insomnia, so I need to work on it more.